Geoarchaeology, Student Mediator Dr. Ruth Siddall @R_Siddall: A Day in the GeoLife Series


Dr. Ruth Siddall, Student Mediator at University College London and Geoarchaeologist

NAME: Dr. Ruth Siddall

CURRENT TITLE:  University College London (UCL) Student Mediator (and geologist!). It’s complicated …

AREA OF EXPERTISE:  The geology of the built environment and geomateriality.


EDUCATION:  BSc (Hons) Geology, University of Birmingham 1986-1989; PhD Geotectonics & Thermochronology University College London 1989-1994


What’s your job like?

My real day job involves trying to fix things when they go wrong for students at UCL. This is hard and sometimes challenging work, so it is good to go out and look at rocks and stones to clear my head and help me remember the reason why I got into academia in the first place! Therefore, I do some consultancy and lots of outreach work with various groups, ranging from pensioners with a commitment to life-long learning as well as architects, museum curators, civil engineers and town planners.

I got into the geology of building materials through working for the American School of Classical Studies in Athens after my PhD, and so in my research, I became a ‘geoarchaeologist’ with an interest in how people have used stone and its derivatives, pottery, cements, plasters and pigments in their daily lives. As a consequence, I have been privileged to work at some amazing archaeological sites and places of cultural heritage, including Corinth in Greece, Pompeii in Italy and at London’s Westminister Abbey.

Recently, after 20 years of lecturing, I took a career change to work with student experience at UCL. I am still able to continue with some research and consultancy but also spend weekends as an ‘urban geologist’, learning and teaching about building stones used in London and other cities.

What’s a typical day like?

A typical urban geology day for me may start with going to Westminster to meet with my colleagues on the London Geodiversity Partnership. Here we discuss issues that affect London’s geological framework and lobby to have these kept on London’s government agenda. These include taking measures to conserve and preserve important areas of geological outcrop in the city’s environment and publishing detailed reports on these locations. My remit is mainly with London’s building stones, and I try to keep on top of new building developments to find out which stones are being used and keeping records of this.

Following this, I may spend lunchtime researching new and old building stones in the city. This is just like traditional geological fieldwork, except that I cannot use a hammer or take samples. But I walk around making field notes on what I observe, ensuring I can accurately locate myself on the map, take photographs and do as much as I can to identify the stones used. I then use this information, along with research on architectural history and building records, to construct the data for my geological walking tours and guides. I also use these data to construct an archive record of the stones used in London over the centuries.


Shap Granite on a London Shopfront. Photo copyright: Ruth Siddall

In the afternoon, I might go and visit a museum or historic property to identify stones used in sculptures, fireplaces and the like. This is always an interesting experience as it invariably involves drawing unwanted attention to myself by being up a ladder, in the middle of a busy museum, brushing away cobwebs to try to identify the marble used on a piece of Rococo sculpture, or finding myself lying on a church floor during the middle of a service …  The information acquired is of course essential as part of the accurate description of a works of art or architectural fittings for museum catalogues, but can also inform art historians about materials available to artists and craftspeople in different regions. Of course such knowledge can also help in the identification of fakes. To do this, it is necessary to memorise the characteristics of a great number of stones, but I also use well-documented reference collections for identification, such as our decorative stone collection at UCL’s Museums, Collections & Cultural Heritage Department.

In the evening, I may go and meet a group to take them on a tour of the building stones used on London’s streets. These normally last about 2 hours, and we look at the architecture and history of the buildings as well as the compositions and origins of the stones used.

What’s fun?

Being an Urban Geologist is great fun. It is like having the same field area which keeps changing at a pace much faster that geological time. The average lifetime of a non-historic city building is 40 years, so things change all the time, and there is always a new ‘outcrop’ to see. It is also a great privilege to work close up with archaeological finds and museum objects or fixtures and fittings in historic buildings. Pretty much every kind of mineral, rock or fossil can be seen on city streets, so they are great learning resources for expanding geological knowledge cheaply, safely and at low cost. I have seen evidence of meteorite impacts, the effects of Proterozoic collision tectonics of Brazilian orogens and found dinosaur bones in London’s building stones.

Portland Stone on the British Museum. Photo copyright: Ruth Sidall

Portland Stone on the British Museum. Photo copyright: Ruth Siddall

What’s challenging?

Despite the fact that the great majority of geologists live or work day-to-day in cities, sadly the geology of cities is often dismissed as unimportant or simply a side show. It can be difficult to highlight the importance of urban geology in traditional Earth Sciences departments. I am lucky that we have a long tradition of urban geological studies at UCL, but it is still considered far from core research or teaching. I find that there is much more interest in pursuing this type of research in schools of architecture and art or archaeology, and indeed my current grants are with UCL Slade School of Fine Art. However, because urban geology is not formally taught anywhere, you have to do a lot of self teaching to learn your craft! This involves reading and researching about global quarries and geologies, spending a lot of time looking at collections, and hours trying to extract information out of architects and building contractors.

“I can probably recognize and identify around a thousand different building stones, but there are always new ones to learn.”


What’s your advice to students?

If you’re interested in learning more about the geology of the built environment, start with a geology degree and try to meet up with someone like me (there’s quite a few of us about!) in your city who does geological walks and try to learn from them. Go and visit building and decorative stone collections in Natural History Museums and start reading up on the quarrying industry. You’re going to have to be prepared to put in some work, but it is rewarding. Don’t be frightened of talking to architects, artists and archaeologists to see where you can collaborate. Someone interested in, say, decorative marbles in the Roman World, would be better off pursuing research in such studies in an archaeology or classics department rather than in an Earth Sciences one.

A lot of what I do is small-scale consultancy and outreach activities, but if you want to make a career in this field, don’t disregard jobs out there in the building stone industry. Many firms are desperate to recruit geologists, yet their businesses are often poorly marketed in the graduate job sector. Contact stone industry organisations like the Marble Institute of America or the Stone Federation of Great Britain for training and career opportunities. It is also a good idea to visit building stone trade fairs and hand out your curriculum vitae (CV) to quarry firms and stone contractors.

Me reflected, whilst trying to photograph highly polished gabbro. Photo copyright: Ruth Siddall

Me reflected, whilst trying to photograph highly polished gabbro. Photo copyright: Ruth Siddall

Updated! Water Resources Planning Advisor, Christorio Silalahi @christo_w_s: A Day in the GeoLife Series


Christorio Silalahi, Water Resources Planning Advisor, Indonesian Government. Photo credit: Christorio Silalahi

NAME:  Christorio W. Silalahi

CURRENT TITLE:  Planning Advisor for Water Resources in Government, Indonesia

AREA OF EXPERTISE: Geophysics Public Work Government


EDUCATION:  Diploma Degree (Undergraduate Degree/Bachelor without Honor) from Institute Technology of Bandung, Indonesia


What’s your job like?

Here, I am going to talk about working as a Planning Advisor for Water Resources in Government. As a Planning Advisor for Water Resources, my team and I go to the field to survey the best resources of water. Our field control includes 12 Provinces for every year’s annual report.

My team and I analyze river water, lake water, and groundwater. If there is a river, we choose it to be a resource. If the lake/river is too far from the village/city, we choose groundwater for resources. But for as long as I have worked, almost all resources of water we choose is from the river. We analyze basic water constituents in the Laboratory Department. If we choose land for water resources, we utilize a consultant or contractor for a geoelectrical survey and control it in a step-by-step report for decision drilling.


Water treatment plant. Photo Copyright: Christorio Silalahi

What’s a typical day like?

My typical day is not so busy. Every 3 months until the end of the year, the consultant or contractor must do a presentation in my office and provide the draft for 3 reports including the Initial Report, Middle Report, and Ending Report.

In the middle of the year, after the consultant and contractor do their jobs, we check all reports from them in a separate report schedule. All technical analysis are included in the reports.

Once a period has been set, we go to check the Installation Treatment Plant Water Process to the 12 provinces by car and check the report again from the Government Institution that controls and supervises the job from the consultant and contractor in that Province.

water treatment

Water treatment process. Photo Copyright: Christorio Silalahi

What’s fun?

In the first year of work in Government, we get all the information and a technical guide tutorial, where the government gives us our chance to learn step-by-step.  This is not as fast as working in a non-governmental company. Every new year, we can get a job for another position from another division in Public Government. We all, as a team of planning advisors, do not have tight timelines, because the job has a one-year time limit. It’s so much fun to go to 12 provinces every year to control a job and find some new professional friends in that province.

What’s challenging?

We must have good, realistic planning to control plants in 12 provinces in one year, economic budgeting, technical engineering, scheduling and communication on budgeting savings to the capitol city, because if the capitol city doesn’t agree, we can’t made field work become a reality.

What’s your advice to students?

• Earth science is one of the most fascinating sciences (and so underrated). The job prospects are really good and very few professions will allow you to travel and experience the landscapes that earth sciences will. Tell me what other science allows you to combine the knowledge of physics, biology and chemistry the way you can in earth science?
• Enjoy what you do.  You don’t have to be super brainy to succeed — just have passion!

Geoelectricity processing, line one slicing dipole, dipole method. Photo copyright: Christorio Silalahi

Geoelectricity processing, line one slicing dipole, dipole method. Photo Copyright: Christorio Silalahi

Geoelectricity method, line two dipole, dipole method. Photo copyright: Christorio Silalahi

Geoelectricity method, line two dipole, dipole method. Photo Copyright: Christorio Silalahi

Aquifer thickness. Copyright: Christorio Silalahi

Aquifer thickness. Copyright: Christorio Silalahi

For further information see the Technical Guide Water Resource Planning (Written in Indonesian language)

Graduate Student, Microscopic Deformation, Stephanie Mills @MicroEarthSci: A Day in the GeoLife Series

Stephanie Mills

Stephanie Mills, Graduate Student and UMaine School of Earth & Climate Science’s scanning electron microscope (and her #scishirt Mind/Matter). Photo copyright: Stephanie Mills

NAME: Stephanie Mills

CURRENT TITLE: Graduate Student in Earth Science

AREA OF EXPERTISE: Microstructure and deformation of rocks and glaciers


EDUCATION: BS in Physics/Chemistry Education from Cedarville University. I will have an MS in Earth Science from the University of Maine in a couple months (yay!!), and I’m currently working on a PhD at UMaine.

WEBSITE: http://Twitter@MicroEarthSci

What’s your job like?

My graduate career is to address the overarching question, “What do microscopic features tell us about large-scale deformation?” I focused on rocks and mountain building events for my Master’s and am now working on ice and flow of glaciers for my PhD.

In my first year, everything was new! I had focused on chemistry, physics, and education in my undergraduate work, so when I started as a field assistant in Georgian Bay, Ontario, I was just amazed and found myself saying, “Oh, so these are rocks!” During my second and third year, I’ve been a teaching assistant for different earth science courses. Last year, I started a project on glacial ice, and I even had the opportunity to collect ice from the Greenland Ice Sheet which I will look at in our scanning electron microscope. Next year, I will be primarily teaching high school while I continue to work on my PhD, because someday, I would like to be a liaison between high schools and colleges in order to get more students involved in research.

Georgian Bay

Georgian Bay, Ontario, where Stephanie did field work for two summers and discovered what rocks were. Photo copyright: Stephanie Mills

What’s a typical day like?

Just like every year is different, every day is different! I have 4 basic tasks that I juggle between:

1. Microscope time! I have taken thousands of images of rocks with a cathodoluminescence detector (so pretty!), and now I am spending a lot of time tweaking our cooling system on the scanning electron microscope so that we can better analyze ice in it.


Cathodoluminescence image of quartz (center, with all the dark lines & blobs in it) and plagioclase. Photo copyright: Stephanie Mills

2. Data analysis time! After collecting lots of data, whether on our microscope or someone else’s different kind of microscope, my time involves making lots of plots…and remaking plots…and remaking plots.

3. Reading and writing time! In school, we get this idea that all the subject areas are separate, but they’re not. Over half my time is spent reading articles and putting together reports or writing my own publications.

4. Teaching time! As a teaching assistant, most of my time was spent grading, but I also tutored students and worked with the professors to improve the course.

What’s fun?

Teaching is most rewarding for me, which is why I’m pursuing that as my ultimate career. But research is lots of fun too, and why I want to get more young students involved! I find tiny things fascinating, so microscope time is my favorite part of research.

“Things under the microscope are really beautiful, so it’s like going to nature’s art gallery every day.”

What’s challenging?

As a graduate student, it’s my job to figure things out. There’s a lot of unspoken expectations. My project didn’t have a clear answer or obvious path to get to that answer. I have to figure out how to do things that no one else in the department knows how to do. It’s frustrating sometimes, but that’s also part of what makes graduate school/research exciting.

What’s your advice to students?

Take initiative to learn about things outside the box of a basic curriculum and network to find out about careers you don’t see on television. I wasn’t able to really figure out my exact interests until coming to graduate school. I identify myself as an educator, but I want to make connections between high schools and colleges, which is not something every educator does. As a researcher, I’d call myself a crystalline Earth materials scientist, which isn’t in any catalog book. Keep exploring!

ice microstructure

A glacier flows from the Greenland Ice Sheet; Per Stephanie, “I want to look at how microstructure (optical image, cross-polars) affects this flow.” Photo copyright: Stephanie Mills

Geoscientist, Quaternary Science, Abi Stone @AbiStone: A Day in the GeoLife Series

Dr. Abi Stone, Lecturer in Physical Geography

Dr. Abi Stone, Lecturer in Physical Geography

NAME:  Abi Stone

CURRENT TITLE:  Lecturer in Physical Geography at the University of Manchester.

AREA OF EXPERTISE:  Quaternary Science, Dryland Palaeoenvironments and Geomorphology, Geochronology, and Hydrogeology, particularly the unsaturated zone


EDUCATION:  PhD Quaternary Science, School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford; MSc Quaternary Science, Royal Holloway University of London; BA(MA) Geography, School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford.




Twitter (@AbiStone):

What’s your job like?

My job is varied, fun and exciting with phases of relative tedium, often hectic, and nearly always rewarding. My time is divided between research, teaching and administrative tasks in various combinations throughout the course of the academic year. This time of year (May and early June) is examination marking season.

My research typically begins with journeys out into deserts and drylands (see Photo 1 of us driving in the Namib Sand Sea) to collect samples of sandy sediments for analysis.

On the Namib desert highway, heading into the sand sea. Copyright: Abi Stone

Photo 1: On the Namib desert highway, heading into the sand sea. Copyright: Abi Stone

I feel extremely lucky to get to travel to such amazing landscapes for my research, and I’ve been very fortunate to have some amazing local support in the field in Namibia from personnel at the Gobabeb Research and Training Centre, the Geological Survey of Namibia, University of Namibia (UNAM) and local land owners and farmers. The research questions I pursue relate to working out what dryland landscapes were like and how much they were changing through time in response to changing climate over hundreds of thousands of years and also to the nature of groundwater resources in dryland regions. My research also involves a fair bit of laboratory work, playing around with sand and chemicals and lasers in the dark lab for luminescence dating, and water and sand and spectrometers/chromotographers in better lit labs for ground water-related research. Interpreting the data and writing the research up for publication involves various levels of teamwork of different sizes depending on the research project I/we are working on.

I get to teach about Dryland Environments, Quaternary Science and Geochronology as well, which is rewarding. It gives me the opportunity to keep up to date with research outside my specialist niches but within the environment I work in and the questions that students ask are often thought-provoking.

What’s a typical day like?

This varies greatly depending on the time of year.

Semester time can involve up to four hours of lectures and tutorials in a day, meetings with students and colleagues, laboratory work, desk-based tasks such as reading, data analysis and article writing and attending to email.

In addition to fieldwork for research, I’m lucky to be involved with teaching on field classes, so I’ll give you an example of a day abroad overseas on a recent field-class in Crete (see Photo 2 for a field-trip view):

An excursion from Manchester to the beautiful blues of Crete. Copyright: Abi Stone

An excursion from Manchester to the beautiful blues of Crete. Copyright: Abi Stone

  • Eat breakfast (a towering serving of fruit and yogurt with honey arrives) at 8 a.m. with colleagues and plan the logistics for the day in terms of which student group will be working in which location.
  • Check that each student group has their plans and equipment assembled for their research.
  • Hand out hard hats, global positioning system (GPS) devices, temperature probes, whirling hygrometers and other bits of kit (can you guess the topic of the project?) and walk with the group to a nearby dry steep-sided gorge.
  • Get the group project leaders to explain their plans for the research for the day and brief their team and set them off to work (see Photo 3).
  • Walk back to base.
  • Have iced coffee and check on another research group.
  • Spend time until lunch working in the shade on some research on the laptop.
  • Eat lunch with colleagues and catch up on student locations and progress.
  • Take a quick dip in the sea.
  • Arrange who will check on each research group.
  • Visit groups.
  • Go back to base.
  • Eat ice cream.
  • Students to return and complete write-up of their days research in field notebooks, and hand them in around 7 p.m.
  • Debrief students with plans for the next day.
  • Read the notebooks and give formative feedback.
  • Order a beer and find somewhere to eat dinner.
Photo 3: Project leaders brief their fellow students on the research project for the day.  Copyright: Abi Stone

Photo 3: Project leaders brief their fellow students on the research project for the day. Copyright: Abi Stone

What’s fun?

Being involved in learning more about the natural world during research and teaching; interacting with, and being inspired by, colleagues during research, particularly when in the field or at conferences; and traveling to some amazing locations.

What’s challenging?

The balance of tasks that can pull your time in different directions. It can be frustrating when sometimes pieces of equipment don’t work in the field or machines have faults in the laboratory. It is increasingly challenging to obtain sources of funding for research.

What’s your advice to students?

Keep enjoying learning! Remember your motivation for studying your subject in the first place, particularly in the moments where the going gets tough. Approach your lectures, seminars and tasks with enthusiasm, remembering that you will only get as much out of them as you put in. Ask questions, even if you think they are silly ones. Seek advice from your lecturers and their networks if you are interested in pursuing future research.